Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Strange developments concerning an old, familiar name

From reading this article in the AmeriQuests journal, linked to today on Political Theory Daily Review, you'd think Gerald Early has more than a few hang-ups. Not to say this isn't an informative and...interesting... piece, although it is in need of an editor at a few points. The typeface and huge blocks of text also make it a chore to read, but I recommend it, for reasons which will soon become clear. Early leads with a Dewey quotation and later brings in Walter Lippmann, so Robot, I know you'll tune in.

The first two-thirds of the article comprise a rather staid account of black/white American relations and the rise of the black intellectual. When you come to the final paragraphs, however, Early slips into a palpable pessimism, especially when discussing black faculty recruitment in academe. I quote at (extreme) length this long-winded analysis:

Universities have become the largest employer of these intellectual; most schools that consider themselves major or important want to have at least one or two, mostly in order to have some sort of race-based aspect to the curriculum (for the social and psychological good of the students), to demonstrate among things in this multicultural age the pedestrian fact that blacks have brains, too, (no one wants anything that involves the conspicuous use of brain-power to be all-white), and to be “role models” for the black students these schools try to enroll; ironically, this means that for these schools black intellectuals exist, largely, perhaps exclusively, for not only extra-intellectual reasons but almost for anti-intellectual reasons, for the black intellectual’s importance is connected almost solely with his or her race, their significance as a sociological phenomenon, and the significance of the race-based stuff they teach largely for its sociological resonance: what it means for the school to offer this, what it means for the students to take these courses with these professors, somehow everyone being liberated by it all in some mysterious way where through the very act of supposedly challenging the institution through one’s presence, the black intellectual merely confirms its legitimacy in the desperation that he or she exhibits in wanting the institution to confirm his or her own.
Yes, that was all one sentence. He goes on to say that for black intellectuals this position "can only make most people unhappy as they exist in the half-light of being both an endangered species and prima donnas, a kind of privileged twilight that is meant to mask or to dim their continued marginal status in American intellectual circles on the whole."

Then we really start our descent: "The most famous of this cohort of black university intellectuals are Henry Louis Gates, the director of the African American Studies Department at Harvard and Cornel West, also of Harvard University. Despite their enormous fame, status, considerable earning power, and great learning, their work is of very little consequence in American letters for very much the reasons I have outlined." Now, this is just silly, bordering on the envious. Despite the obligatory insertion of "great learning," the phrase "enormous fame, status, considerable earning power" smacks of a low blow. And how exactly is Henry Louis Gates' work "of very little consequence"? Gates is a MacArthur genius fellow; his book The Signifying Monkey won the American Book Award; he edited the Norton Anthology of African American Literaure; he and Kwame Anthony Appiah edited the Encarta Africana, an online African-American encyclopedia; he has written articles for Time, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, which is more than most academics and intellectuals can say. (Gates' Harvard web page.) To simply assert that his work is of little consequence is totally irresponsible. He also gets Cornel West's title wrong: West teaches at Princeton, not Harvard.

Then Early states: "As someone who is considered by many a black public intellectual, I claim no special exception for myself from the general condition as I see it of the black intellectual in the American university and in American life. I directed a Black Studies Program for about seven or eight years and thought it odd, fruitless way [sic] for an institution to dispense charity, and a feeble attempt at minority 'enabling.'" This statement would probably confuse his colleages in the Washington University African and African-American Studies Department, whose website lists him as an affiliated professor. "I directed" and "thought it a fruitless way" give the false impression that Early has renounced any ties to African-American Studies departments. Early has also built his career on the sort of African-American- and race-centric scholarship he laments in this article. Work sample: Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation, This is Where I Came In: Black America in the 1960s, Miles Davis and American Culture, The Muhammed Ali Reader, The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader, and One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture. According to his faculty page, he's currently working on a book about all-black Fisk University.

The next and final paragraph is either a glib, hasty summary or a smug, self-pitying write-off. Brace yourself for more long sentences:

I was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, so I have an “impressive” set of credentials to make me seem more important, by virtue of my education, than I am. I teach in a field, American literature, that seems to be transforming itself into something else: sociology for some, “theory” for others (who rather think themselves quite intellectual because they toss about a bunch of densely-worded thought-clichés), “culture” for still others (like myself who have decided that no canvas is too big to doodle and finger-paint upon); films for others (where, after all, everything from music scores to magazines ads are “texts” to be read and interpret).
The first sentence is an insult to Penn and Cornell, plain and simple, done to make Early seem honest and self-critical. The repeated use of quotation marks ("theory," "culture," "texts") is truly annoying, as is Early's pronouncement about "densely-worded thought-clichés." It's annoying when people who know nothing about literary theory succumb to this kind of anti-intellectualism, even worse when chaired academics who have numerous colleagues in the field do it.

So ultimately, I'm confused. What exactly is AmeriQuests? Did someone really peer-review this article? Did someone even edit it? Most of the other articles in this issue, a special on "Public Intellectuals, Academia, and the Media," use extensive annotation. Early's clearly does not. Does he suppose that no one will read this article, in which he offhandedly belittles other academics, even whole departments and universities? By all means, if Early thinks that African American Studies are problematic, he has the right to speak his mind. But this article is reckless in its characterizations and dishonest in its self-presentation. Weird.


Blogger Robot said...

Good find. No time today to comment (or even read) in full. Expect full response tomorrow.

11:49 AM  
Blogger d'Mardree said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

From talking to Austin about this article, I see where I should have been more clear. I think Early may be entirely correct in his diagnosis of black intellectuals, but what I am taking issue with is his self-presentation in this piece. I just don't think it was necessary (hell, it's just wrong) to point fingers, name names, and distance yourself from a trend you're actively involved in, with no admission of the nature of your scholarship.

11:21 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

Here are some thoughts that I started before talking to Scantron and finished after:

I read this article as well, but I can't say that I had the same response you have (except for the editing part, which I agree is ridiculous). I can't work up the fury that you evidently have at Early's treatment of intellectual institutions and individual intellectuals themselves. For one thing, I don't think any of these institutions/people will be really damaged. For another, I don't think he's insulting their prominence in the way that you think he is. That's because this stuff is the logical conclusion of his argument, which, if you dig deep enough, is: Black intellectuals can never be anything but black intellectuals because of the demands that society and individual institutions place on them. Whereas white intellectuals are allowed to interpret a wide range of topics, black intellectuals are constantly forced to interpret black society to whites and blacks' place in society to blacks while, at the same time, representing an example of a black person for whites and a role model for blacks. As he says, "I think one can clearly see the nature of the problem of the black public intellectual; he or she was and is a product, actually, as cross-over figures, of anti-intellectual forces and not permitted the same range of interests as their white counterparts. In part, this happened because whites, on the whole, were never very interested in having blacks talk about white experience or any other experience but their own) in any useful way except as a self-conscious black person reacting to it."
Thus West, Gates, and Early himself may be the scholars that they are celebrated as. But they are forbidden the experience of speaking to anyone without having their own identity brought into the picture, and that identity constrains the subjects on which they can speak. Now, we postmodernists may say that everyone has their identity brought into the picture, all the time. But even the most extreme of those who say all thought is related to identity would have to agree that for black intellectuals, the "black" is more important than "white" would ever be for a "white intellectual" (the concept of which has to be created, and is only brought into view by the presence of "black intellectuals"). In short, a "black intellectual" is always precisely that, and therefore a commodity or asset to any organization with social justice as its goal; we never have to say "white intellectual" because that's what the word "intellectual" means.
Two experiences from my college years confirm, to some extent, Early's argument. One is from a class with Early himself, "The Idea of America." The name and content of the course indicated that Early was interested in the subject of America as a whole: the reading list included books about the writing of the constitution, some of The Federalist, a book about the Gettysburg, Johnny Tremain, Huckleberry Finn, The Education of Henry Adams, Terminator, Singing in the Rain, and so on. There always seemed to be a disconnect between the class and Early and midway through the semester one of the reasons for this became clear. During discussion of James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, Early made an argument that we, all white college students, were more separated from him by our age than by our race. I wasn't sure what to say, so as isn't usually the case, I kept my mouth shut. To my surprise, the normally sullen and quiet class came alive: not one person agreed with Early. Everyone argued that his race was more important than his age in making him different than us. I still think about this incident from time to time, but it really hit home when I read Early's article. I think it reinforces his argument that universities, or at least students, are often more concerned with who black professors are than what they have to say. I believe, with Socrates, or with Allan Bloom's interpretation of Socrates, that true teaching requires a strong personal and emotional bond between teacher and student. If this is true, how could Early have walked out of that room and believed that he could succeed as a teacher? Thus, to a certain extent, it doesn't matter whether Early is correct; what matters is that he can believe he is correct, or anyone else can.
I'm also reminded of Cornel West's speech at Wash U. He covered all of the "black" subjects to which Early believes black intellectuals are confined: jazz, slavery, Jesus. But he also talked about Socrates and Plato. This would seem contradict Early's argument. But that wasn't the case: West was interpreting Socrates' thought and its relation to democracy in America. His argument was that we need Socrates' will to truth, but that we can't have it without remembering the "tragicomic sense" of blues musicians. He was thus packaging black thought into the greater Western canon, justifying the existence of black intellectuals and their thought in a program for promoting American democracy. This is exactly what Early is talking about.
I'm not sure if Early is completely correct, or if we should listen to him even if he is. But he raises some good points. When will black intellectuals just be intellectuals? When will black people just be people? These questions, which Early has answered with "Not yet...," have been asked for years. I’m not sure where we go from here, but I think the value of Early's argument outweighs the damage any of his mistakes has done.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

I'm afraid I don't have too much new to add. I made sure to read the piece before I read your (Scantron's) post, and your (austin's) comments, and I agree with both -- that this is one extraordinarily poorly organized and edited essay (the Cornell West at Harvard thing is just incredible to me), which does sell its critics short (including its own author), and yet which does seem to hit upon the basic truth that African American intellectuals generally talk about what it means to be an African American.

The best intellectuals, of course, do much more than this. Early does much more than this. West and Gates do much more than this. It was Stanley Crouch who I remember seeing speak at Wash U -- on the topic of Public Intellectuals no less (I think the now extremely famous Michael Berube was also a speaker). Crouch surely wasn't there to be the token speaker of "African American intellectuals" -- though maybe this is because of the 'independence' from the academy that Early mentions -- and I don't remember him once even mentioning African Americans at all. He talked mostly about Marx, and I will never forget his recollection of what a friend once told him about "Capital": that it was at once both deeply persuasive, and deeply wrong.

austin is no doubt correct, however. Though I have discovered it anectodally by looking at the faculty pages of dozens of schools, I take it as a given that when a photo of a black faculty member appears, the vast majority of his or her research and teaching will be about race, and when a woman appears, gender.

This is the sad truth at the moment. Fortunately, however, things are getting better and not worse. The choice that was once thrown into Richard Wright's face of being EITHER a Communist or a Negro (but never a negro communist) is no longer present.

Which brings me back to Early's own work. What struck so many people as right about Early's well known quip on the triumverate of America (jazz, baseball, the constitution) is not that it was right about only the black American experience, but that it was right about the American experience as a whole. The reason that each of these three elements had to do in part with black culture is not that Early is black, but that black culture is important to the story of America. Period. And the reason why, I always thought, black intellectuals talk about being black, is that they find it important they do so: to give a voice to the voiceless, a narrative to the formless. Black intellectuals SHOULD be considered just intellectuals. Of course. But I don't see why this should mean that what they have traditionally concerned themselves with is necessarily a product of institutional pressure, or self-indulgence.

I too, in other words, don't see the need for all of the ostensible pessimism. Maybe there's something here we're (or at least I am) not quite grasping.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

The other point I will second: what the hell is Ameriquests anyway?

The other article I read, before I even saw Early's, was the one on Chomsky. Yes, it had more citations. But what an equally strange piece. It was as if the author was engaging in a debate over the divinity of Christ. Holy shit! Not only does the author describe this credibly hard things- not at the expense of kindness, mind you. Faithfulness means being truthful- calling a spade a spade in light of the witness of scripture, and the biblical shape of doctrine.

Tolerance, being nice and balance- Venus' children - are wholly and fully sub-biblical words, the driving force of which is indifference, narcissism and mixing error with truth- and not passionate love for God and neighbor.


dm not passionate love for God and neighbor.



8:09 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...


Are the Spaniards showing you a really good time or something? What the hell does that last post mean? The only other point I will raise is that Early sets up a false equation--when he talks about "American letters," he discusses Faulkner, Twain, James, etc. But Gates and West obviously cannot easily be fit into this category, because they are not *writers*, they are *academics*. Asking Henry Louis Gates to be the next Mark Twain is like asking Richard Rorty to be Saul Bellow. It's simply not the same. The other thing is that Henry Louis Gates is the Chair of the freakin' African American Studies department at Harvard. Chiding him for caring too much about African Americans is like chiding Francis Crick for caring too much about DNA. It's their profession, for Pete's sake! What Early overlooks is that there are plenty of African American academics who do good, solid scholarly work in other fields outside of arts and letters--chemistry, economics, biology, etc. Even Classics, for example, has Danielle Allen at the University of Chicago, who is an incredibly well respected name within classics who does nothing about race or ethnicity.

I agree with Robot that things are getting better. There is a younger crop of writers, for instance, whose work has nothing really to do with their being black (Zadie Smith [who, I will grant, is English], Wash U's own Carl Phillips). Also, women can be counted on in this day and age to do something in academia other than feminist studies. (In classics this has long been true; in political theory, people like Seyla Benhabib, Elizabeth Anderson, and Nancy Fraser do loads of great work that has nothing to do with women per se. And let's not forget Hannah Arendt from half a century ago.)

The only other thing I will say is that although Early makes a point to highlight black intellectuals' early reliance on the Communist party and their need now to distance themselves from Marxist theory, I think this speaks loads more about the American socialist tradition than about black intellectuals' shortcomings. But that is neither here nor there. Good night, all. (I, for one, have had an excellent evening.)

4:22 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

I have been sabatoged. Who has done this to me? Who has taken my Words and changed them? Oh Lord, how long!

11:36 AM  

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